Gazprom's Horses Got Lucky, Others Do Not

For MTYevgeny Matuzov, who saved 35 of Gazprom's horses from the slaughterhouse, leading a group of horse enthusiasts on a ride in the Moscow region.
Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller had a lot more than gas to worry about when he took the company's reins in 2002. In the Kaluga region, he had to deal with 230 horses.

Gazprom owned numerous nongas assets at the time, and among them was a farm founded by Miller's predecessor, Rem Vyakhirev. The Teplichny farm, located 120 kilometers southwest of Moscow, produced food for Gazprom's own use and included dairy and meat-processing facilities as well as peacocks, pheasants, guinea hens, ostriches, cows, pigs and horses. The horses were primarily used to produce kumiss, or fermented mares' milk.

Miller took a look at Teplichny and its 300 farmhands and ordered it sold in 2004. The 230 horses were put up for auction. But when 37 failed to sell, Gazprom decided to ship them to a slaughterhouse in the Moscow region, Izvestia reported in 2004.

The decision was not surprising. Injured, old and other unwanted horses are often loaded onto trucks and taken to small-time slaughterhouses, which use horseflesh to make smoked sausage. In fact, 80 percent of privately owned horses are destined for meat plants — be they thoroughbreds owned by the rich and famous or plain, private horses, said Yevgeny Matuzov, head of the Avanpost horse club in the Moscow suburbs.

The fate of unwanted horses contrasts sharply with the role that horses play in Russian life. For a long time, Vladimir Putin's web site boasted a picture of him tenderly kissing his horse. Equestrian races in Gudermes, Chechnya, were held to celebrate Dmitry Medvedev's inauguration last month.

But a law protecting all animals from cruel treatment — which most European countries have had since the 19th century — does not exist in Russia after Putin vetoed the corresponding legislation in 2000. That means that horses are at the mercy of their owners, who carry no legal responsibility for them, sometimes leading to rampant abuse and neglect.

In the case of Gazprom, the horses were lucky. As news about the decision to send them to the slaughterhouse spread on the Internet, horse lovers pooled their money to buy them for the price of horseflesh — 35 rubles per kilogram, or about 16,000 rubles per animal.

"Horses are not meat, " said Matuzov, who bought 35 of the Gazprom horses, 10 of which were colts.

For MT
A rider petting a Gazprom horse that Matuzov got for the price of horseflesh.
Gazprom declined comment. "This old incident has nothing to do with Gazprom's core activity, so there can be no official comment," spokesman Pyotr Limonov said.

While the Gazprom horses found homes, a stolen horse from the city of Tula was not so fortunate. Last summer, a 17-year-old girl bought the horse in Moscow and kept it tied to a metal fence on Ulitsa 26 Bakinskikh Komissarov, a street in southwestern Moscow, for a month. The horse grew sickly after standing for days and nights in the rain and living on small packages of dry oatmeal.

When Rossia's "Vesti" news program aired a segment about the horse's plight on national television, the real owner arrived from Tula to claim the animal.

"I've seen owners leave their horses to freeze for hours on the street in temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius while they sat in a cafe with friends waiting for customers," Matuzov said. "If you call police, they will do nothing about it because the horse is private property."

Moscow does have a set of rules for riding horses, but they rarely work because there are no means of enforcing them, said Darya Nikulina, the deputy head of a group that protects horses, Equihelp.

An article in the Criminal Code punishes the sadistic treatment of animals, but the statute has limitations, Matuzov said. For example, a person can be charged for beating a horse with a hammer if he did so in sight of children and several witnesses are ready to testify in court. "But no one can forbid an individual from buying a horse and tying it to the nearest post without any shelter or food," Matuzov said.

Living in a big city is bad for horses, Nikulina said. The animals are not meant to walk for hours on asphalt — it hurts their hooves if they are not trimmed properly, which is often the case. They also are not safe to use for children's recreation, especially in traffic, she said. Horse carriage drivers need no special license or safety training to operate on the streets; they just need to be older than 14.

For MT
Bestia, who was hit by a car on Tverskaya, seen shortly after the surgery.
Last July, a carriage ride ended in tragedy for Valeria Kolodyazhnaya, the 5-year-old daughter of the mayor of Sochi. The driver had put her on the coachman's seat when a car unexpectedly brushed against the carriage. The girl fell off and was crushed by the carriage wheels.

Nevertheless, horse riding is a lucrative business. The animals work for food, and they do not demand overtime pay. No health or retirement insurance is necessary.

Horse owners interviewed for this article insisted that they treated their animals well. "It depends completely on the owner. If he entrusts his horses to teenagers, who in turn give rides to children, he must be in constant control of how they treat the animal," said Irina, 23, who owns 10 horses and rents them out to horse lovers. She refused to give her last name.

Irina acknowledged, however, that many owners do not care about their horses.

Keeping a horse in Moscow costs $200 to $2,000 per month, depending on whether the animal is placed in an elite stable such as those at Pradar Club or in a dirty metal garage. A so-called hobby-class horse usually costs 6,000 to 10,000 rubles ($255 to $425) per month to keep. Each day, the horse needs 60 liters of water, 10 to 12 kilograms of hay, 3 to 6 kilograms of oats and some salt.

A horse lives 25 to 30 years, and it reaches its prime at 8 to 15 years. From the age of 18, it is considered a senior, and by 25 it is just plain old.

Elite clubs offer no shelter services for keeping old animals, no matter how much the owner is willing to pay. One option for a kind-hearted owner is to send the horse to "retire" in southern Russia, where horse lovers open up their barns to old horses for a small fee to cover feed. A handful of lucky former Russian racehorses can be found at Fiona Oakes, a private animal sanctuary outside of London.

Most horses, however, are sent to slaughterhouses.

Bestia, a red Russian trotter, was almost sent there as well after she was hit by a car on Tverskaya Ulitsa. The horse, heading home after giving rides to children, suffered an open fracture on a front leg and could not walk. The driver who hit Bestia disappeared, as did her owner — after removing the saddle and bridle. Bestia was left lying in the street.

A passer-by happened to have Nikulina's number and called. Nikulina brought the animal to the Bitsa Horse Sport facility, where veterinarians performed a complicated surgery to save the leg. Horse fans collected donations for the surgery over the Internet. Nobody knew at the time that in a month, Bestia would give birth to a colt, Bereginya. "The colt was extremely weak at birth, but both mother and daughter are fine now," Nikulina said.

As Bereginya grows, she may find her calling in a club like Avanpost, which organizes popular horse tours — from several hours to several days — on picturesque routes in central Russia. These days, the Gazprom horses are doing just that.